The Exorcist changed everything.
So much so that I consider it the first modern horror movie, if for no other reason than the fact that it was the first horror flick ever made that can still scare the living shit out of me. Don’t believe me? Rent it, buy, it stream it – just watch it again, late at night, with all the lights turned out, alone. You’ll need weeks of therapy after.
Before that of course we had the Universal monster movies. Still fun, to be sure, but hardly scary anymore, let’s be honest. And then there were those Hammer films of the 50s and 60s, but although they were finely made, handsomely mounted productions, they were more creepy than actually terrifying. The closest precursor Exorcist had both in chills and topic matter was Rosemary’s Baby, but that movie has aged horribly – not even remotely scary anymore, perhaps in part because Exorcist itself raised the bar on demonic children flicks. Well, Exorcist and this one, The Omen, and spawns of Satan would never be the same again.
Actually The Omen was but one of many Exorcist imitators to come out in the mid 70s, but it quickly set itself apart from the pack with a surprise B.O. take of 61 million. The reason is pretty obvious: it’s scary as hell, and you don’t have all the lights turned off either. I can remember seeing the edited version on ABC sometime I the 80s, requiring the temporary suspension of my 10:00PM bedtime curfew. The film was the talk of all sixth graders the next day at school, with particular emphasis on the ending, and how we would’ve DEFINITELY done things differently if we were the Gregory Peck character.
And now, seeing it al these years later, I can safely attest that it’s still just as scary, but now I can better ascertain why. The reason lies in the depiction of this hapless couple, Kathryn and Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck and Lee Remick). Although he’s of elevated status – a U.S. ambassador to Great Britain – they’re a normal, everyday couple trying to have what most couples want: a “normal” healthy child. And we like them, too, as they are very much in love and want so much to love their child. I this is the key to great horror: set up a normal, everyday situation with empathetic people, so that when all hell breaks loose, you have an investment at stake. This is also why one of my other favorite horror flicks, Poltergeist, worked so well. And sure, there’s plenty of Biblical quoting and religious mumbo jumbo thrown in for authenticity, but at its heart are the people.
And credit must go to director Richard Donner and screenwriter David Seltzer (the first major film for both) for allowing the intensity to build gradually, instead of walloping the audience too soon at once. Filmmakers knew how to do this back then, as the guiding hand of Hitchcock was still omnipresent. I haven’t seen the Omen remake but I’m willing to wager it commits just that sin, as so many modern writers are too insecure with their stories, thinning that audiences are too impatient to wait too long for their thrills.
So the story is pretty familiar to most by now. Diplomat Robert Thorn rushes to be with his wife, Kathy, as she give birth at an Italian hospital, only to learn it was stillborn. He is convinced by the doctor to adopt a child born at just the same time, and he decides not to tell his wife, who’d been longing for a child of her own for years. Along with the news of his promotion to U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, the Thorns not seem to have the perfect life, and they move into an idyllic mansion shortly thereafter.
But things don’t stay quite so idyllic. Their son, Damien, now five, has been acting, shall we say, a bit strangely. When he goes to a zoo, the animals either go nuts or run away. He’s freaks out whenever he goes near a church, and so plans to take him to a wedding fall apart fast. And even more shocking, his young nanny hangs herself from a rooftop right in front of his birthday party and all its attendees. (The cut to the clown was priceless.) The new nanny, Mrs. Baylock, seems a bit off kilter too, and we learn of her plans to protect him at whatever cost. And her demonic dog helps out too.
So Robert figures out pretty soon that something’s he matter with this kid. A priest visits him, begging him to accept Christ entirely, and to visit some dude in Italy for some unknown reason. A photographer, Keith Jennings, also warns him about his son, but Robert isn’t entirely convinced until the Little Devil runs his mommy off a ledge with his tricycle, causing her miscarriage, something foretold by the priest. Now the two men trudge off to Rome, where it al started, to get down to the truth. They unearth Damien’s biological mom, who was a jackal, and Robert’s stillborn child, who was murdered by Damien so they could switch places.
Now Robert knows his boy is the Antichrist, so he gets the daggers he needs to kill him and heads back home (Oh, and Keith is accidentally beheaded when he offers to do the stabbing himself.) After discovering the 666 on the boys head, he grabs him and drives him to the church, killing Baylock in the process. But dear old Dad just can’t do the deed fast enough; British bobbies shoot him when they see him raise the dagger. At his parents’ funeral, Damien, now the ward of the U.S. President, turns around and looks at us, smiling. Evil wins, again…
And now, having done thus synopsis, I see another reason why this is all so affecting. It’s damned sad, as everyone bites the dust in this one. I suppose if you’ve not seen his before you might harbor some hope that at least the photog could live. But no; when you go up against the devil, you’d better expect mass casualties.
And it’s tragic in the other sense, too – the Sophoclean/Shakespearean sense. Roert Thorn is indeed a tragic hero – well-born, of noble birth, nowhere to go but down, yet entirely sympathetic. And most importantly, he chooses his fate in the beginning, when he agrees to the baby switching. His moment of realization? Several oments, but I like the moment when the doctor tells him his wife doesn’t think the baby’s hers. And Robert knows she’s right, but can’t say. And he knows he f**ked up. Royally.
Can’t end this review without praising the actors for fleshing out those characters. Peck, back on the Fox collection after a run in the late-forties (Twelve O’clock High, Gentleman’s Agreement) is stellar here, putting us inside the head of this well-meaning but ultimately ill-advised individual. Back then, horror didn’t shy aay from the emotional ramifications of death, and the scene in which Peck gets the news of his wife’s death demonstrates that. His slow, building-up tears are a reminder that beyond the fire-and-brimstone topic matter we have frail, vulnerable people. People who’ve adopted the devil, to be sure, but people nonetheless. And no one registers shock like Lee Remick; her look of horror is permanently etched into my visual memory. (Apparently, at least in the baboon scene, that shock is real. Check out the trivia section on the imdb.)
Bloody good show. A classic for the ages, horror or otherwise.